The Community Connection
Sunshine Week exists to promote transparency
Each year in March, news media organizations across the country highlight the importance of transparency in government and the work of journalists to ensure openness among elected officials.
Sunshine Week, as the observance is known, this year comes in a time of particular challenge. Pandemic mitigation measures have forced the business of local government and courts onto a tightrope of privacy with meetings held virtually and court sessions by video.
Questions have arisen about whether streamed meetings should be saved as public record, whether every submitted public comment should be read aloud on a streamed meeting and how to ensure public participation in areas where citizens lack access to internet.
Local news journalists have played an important role in navigating through this unusual time, working to ask the questions and report the actions of local government, be it state, county, school board, borough or township. The past year has also brought to the forefront questions of racial justice and election reforms, both demanding that police and public officials explain decisions with openness.
The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which this newspaper is a member, is the state sponsor of Sunshine Week to draw attention to the intent of the Sunshine Act and Open Records Law in Pennsylvania. These laws together guarantee the public’s right to access government information at public meetings and through public records, allowing the public to witness decision-making so that the democratic process functions properly — and to be made aware when the doors are closed.
A week ago, MediaNews Group reporter Rachel Ravina reported on the Norristown Area School Board filling two vacancies on the board without conducting public candidate interviews.
School board leaders and the solicitor justified the selection process because state law allows closed-door executive sessions for personnel. However, both the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and PNA note that the “personnel’ exception does not apply to replacement of elected officials such as school board members.
This was not the only example in recent weeks:
• In Berks County, county commissioners failed to make public the contents of a U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement proposal regarding the future of the county facility that had been housing ICE detainees. Those held in the center were released recently by the federal government. The proposal was voted on at a public commissioners’ meeting but its contents were not revealed, prompting the Reading Eagle to editorialize, “Nothing makes a mockery out of open-meetings laws more than boards taking public votes while keeping the subject matter secret.” To make matters worse, the county then refused the newspaper’s right-to-know request for the contents of the letter, making the secrecy even more flagrant.
• In early February, reporting by the watchdog news agency SpotlightPA showed that the Pennsylvania Department of State had failed to publicly advertise a proposed constitutional amendment referendum to extend legal recourse for victims of sexual abuse. The error set back the amendment process by more than a year, causing furor and the resignation of Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. Gov. Tom Wolf then “declined to provide details of exactly what occurred, how it happened, who else was responsible for the error, and whether any other disciplinary action or terminations had resulted,” SpotlightPA reported.
• A recent editorial by MediaNews Group pointed out that the Wolf administration had failed to properly advertise public hearings regarding the proposed rulemaking of the Environmental Quality Board’s CO2 Budget Trading Program, also known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, according to PNA. Among the counties where advertisements were not placed were Montgomery and Chester counties, according to information provided by PNA.
These four examples of officials’ failures to be completely honest with the people who put them in office and pay their salaries is at the heart of Sunshine Week’s aim. The rules of open government are not in place to make easier the work of journalists. Rather, the work of journalists exists to give citizens insights into actions officials conduct outside public view.
Open government is a twoway street lined with trust. This week is a reminder to walk it outside the darkness of secrecy and let the sun shine in.